Tuesday morning,. European Cup final week. I’m sitting in my car outside our ground as the rain bounces off the windscreen. I’m waiting to go in to our media day as I’ve been chosen along with eight other players to do some interviews. We had Monday off as it was a Bank Holiday and that had me thinking back to my Leinster days, when we always trained on Mondays, Bank Holidays or not. Matt Williams used to say to us: « boys, if you want a Bank Holiday, go work in a bank. »
I began the day with a massage from one of our physios, then we split up _ the forwards did some weights while the backs did some sprint work outside before we reversed the process. The club is like a circus. Madness.
Personally I’d just rather crawl into my own little shell for the week and have somebody wake me up on Sunday in Edinburgh before the final.
TV crews and journalists are everywhere. As I pedalled on my bike in the gym there were about seven or eight cameras running. In the previous two years there hadn’t been this media frenzy in the build up to the final so I suppose this proves that the competition is just getting bigger and bigger.
And the tv and media coverage all helps to pay our wages.
We’ve played three matches in the French Championship since our semi-final win over Leicester, against Stade Francais, Narbonne and Castres. We travelled to Paris on the following Friday for what people were calling a rehearsal for the European Cup final in the Parc des Princes, and a 45,000 sell-out.
I was on the bench which I wasn’t too disappointed about under the circumstances. It was a scorcher _ the hottest day of the year so far. I was even tired from the warm-up. Toulouse were leading 19-15 at half-time but in the second-half they ran away with it. I came on for about the last 15 minutes. Jean-Baptiste Elissalde was also on the bench while Fabien Pelous and Jean Bouilhou were still out. Our injury list worsened as Omar Hasan hurt his knee and Gregory Lamboley injured his hamstring and we’re still waiting to see whether either of them will make Sunday’s final.
In the dressing-room afterwards the heads were down. I noticed Alfie in the corner getting his short off and practically climbing into the fridge. About 20 minutes later he was still lieing on the dressing-room floor with a big bag of ice on his chest and eventually I persuaded him to get up on his feet.
This defeat meant we had it all to do in the French Championship as we were holding the fourth and last semi-final place. That evening Guy Noves cornered me in the airport and told me that in the last 13 years only once had Toulouse failed to qualify for a semi-final spot. He asked me did I realise how important the next game against Narbonne was. We had to win this game if we were to make the play-offs. He told me to get plenty of rest that week and not to do too much work in my bar. We travelled on the Thursday for the Friday night game away to Narbonne, which wouldn’t be the norm as it’s only a two-hour drive away. We got off to a good start and ended up with a bonus point by half-time.
Paula, Gemma and the kids had travelled up that day to watch the match as were going to stay on and enjoy the weekend on the coast. That night I met up with Aidan McCullen who had just signed a two-year contract with the club and had been taken up to the game by our recruitment officer Jean-Michel Rancoule.
I didn’t have anything to do with it other than give them my opinion about Aidan when they asked me about him. He’s a very good player and we got on well together in our Leinster days so it was great to see him on board.
We headed off to Narbonne where the girls had sorted out a hotel on the plage. We stopped off in a lovely old bar cum pizza parlour where we stayed until 1.30 in the morning. The girls tucked into the vino while myself and Alfie had a beer _ just the one beer with two straws.
Later on the kids fell asleep and I lost out in rock/paper/scissors so I had to carry Daniel while Alfie carried the lighter load, Josh. I couldn’t stop laughing when I saw that our hotel was called The Clap. But it turned out to be very nice on the inside, with a bar and a swimming pool. Well done girls. Top marks.
I got my early morning wake up call at about 7.00 from the boys. I thought they might have a lie on but no such luck. So the three of us headed down for some petit dejeuner and I took them to the beach, buying a couple of kites and a beach ball in the shop on the plage. Josh’s was the cheaper version with one cord, but I eventually got it going, whereas Danny’s was more expensive and complicated, with two cords.
While I was working on it I saw Josh’s drifting away into the sky. Then Danny’s came to ground with a thud and was practically ruined. Meanwhile, the ball drifted off into the sea. So I was €;45 lighter in my wallet with one broken kite, and two tired and emotional boys.
That afternoon we chilled out on the beach and then drove up to Narbonne to meet up with Gareth Llewellyn, and on Sunday we met up with Benny Willis in Beziers. Before leaving, we spotted Florian Fritz’s car and, to much quizzical looks from passers by, we sprayed his car with shaving foam which hardened into the windows under the sun and signed our names with the Toulouse crest. It took him about two or three hours to scrape the foam off.
The day before last weekend’s big game against Castres I went to the airport to collect my brother-in-law Morgan, Marie and the kids Joe, Jamie and Hannah, and also met up with nine Bective boys who were over for a stag weekend, minus the stag, Frankie Smyth. His new bride wouldn’t allow him go.
When I went to the bar that afternoon they were already tucked into a few bottles of champagne and look set for a good weekend.
Later on I got a call from Collette, who manages the bar. She was asking me if one of the Bective crew, The Badger, was mad? When I asked why she told me that he had been chewing a big hole in the bar counter. I saw the damage the next day and I now know why he’s called The Badger. I fully intend to return the favour when I am invited over to his house some day.
The last time we played Castres I had been knocked unconscious after running into their South African Jacques Deen. So I was looking forward to this match as I couldn’t remember much about the last one.
With Castres just four points behind us it was a must-win game and a sell-out, and we came through with another good victory and a bonus point.
So that leaves us nine points clear of them and we can’t be touched now. I started in the second-row and finished in the back-row after Fabien Pelous returned from injury. It was great to see Fabien back and Jean Bouilhou also.
Sunday’s final will be our 42nd game of the season so far, with one more league match, a semi-final and, fingers crossed, a French final to come.
We’re coming to the end of a long season but I’m really looking forward to the remaining games. We seem to be in pretty good shape apart from a slight doubt about Frederic Michalak. Personally I’m glad the final is on neutral ground even though it’s between two French teams. It’ll be great to have so many friends and family at Murrayfield and, hopefully, we can do the business.
I know what it’s like to win and lose a final with Toulouse, and the last one is fresher in our minds.
(In an interview with Gerry Thornley of The Irish Times).